Updated 28 October, 2016
My goal as a classroom teacher is to do the best I can to make sure my content is meeting the needs of my learners. After fifteen years of teaching English, I know one thing to be very true: Every single group of learners I work with is different and will require different things from me. One semester I could have a group of students who have strong communicative fluency but are weak in complex critical thinking and contextual analysis of lectures and reading passages. The next semester I may have students who can easily ace a grammar, listening and reading test but struggle to speak in full sentences or respond outside of scripted conversation. This is the frustration and joy of teaching English: The classroom is a dynamic living space that supports the development of unique individuals with unique needs. But how do you know what’s truly working for your learners?
While observation is a valuable resource for assessing student skills, it is really tests, quizzes and tasks that provide enough evidence to understand a learner’s current abilities, strengths and weaknesses. So in any classroom, whether I’m following along with a textbook or creating a custom course, at some point, I need to stop and assess what is working for my learners so I can respond to their needs. Having a solid understanding of the level of ability of learners to perform with specific skills can help me target my teaching to utilize learner strengths to help build skills where learners are weak. This is where tools like the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and the Global Scale of English (GSE) become extremely useful.
How the granularity of the GSE is a valuable resource
Both the CEFR and GSE are tools that help communicate a learner’s ability to perform. For teachers and administrators, these tools are useful because of the external validation of performance indicators. I myself have spent countless hours creating lesson plans and objectives and wondering “Is this challenging enough?” or “Is this going to be too difficult?” Often, the arbitrator is running the lesson in class and observing the results: successful learning or Hindenburg-level disaster. I found the CEFR useful as a way to quickly gauge whether or not an activity was addressing specific skills that other learners at the same level could perform. The Global Scale of English goes further by drilling down more explicitly into the skills. Where the CEFR is more of a general collection, the GSE provides more granular insight into the explicit skills and functions learners can build to become more proficient in their skills. It’s like the difference between driving from X to Y with or without turn-by-turn directions.
The Global Scale of English starts with the CEFR and builds out 1,000+ descriptors of performance across all four skills. This provides better distribution of the language skills and supports the usefulness of the CEFR to describe learning performance. A word of caution: The descriptors are not designed to be prescriptive about the learning journey! Like the CEFR, the GSE is not an all-or-nothing collection of descriptors indicating that “in order to learn D, you must first learn A, B and C—AND in that order.” Anyone who knows anything about language education can easily see the problems inherent in that kind of thinking. That’s because each learner has unique needs and learning does not occur in a straight line.
So, it is its granular nature that makes the GSE such a valuable resource. As an educator, I feel quite confident in my teacher’s intuition and my ability to use reflective practice to observe what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom. I can be creative and know when to use practice activities and assessments that come with my courses. I also know when I need to add activities and create content that will engage my learners and perhaps add a challenge that is meaningful, but that my coursebook does not contain. In the past, I would build that content based on my knowledge as a teacher and my knowledge of my students and use the course materials and future assessments as a general guide for their level. When planning I might also consult with other teachers and colleagues in the field as a way of brainstorming ideas and validating whether the content I’m creating is at the right level for my learners. But sometimes, I wonder if I’m making the best decisions. Are my lessons and content truly built for the skills and needs of my students? Enter the GSE Teacher Toolkit: an interactive resource with all the GSE descriptors.
Remember how we have 1,000+ descriptors for the GSE? Well, the GSE toolkit allows a teacher to drill down into all the descriptors quickly and easily to look for specific skills and to determine the level of challenge those skills will present learners. For me, there are three distinct ways to use the toolkit that will benefit English teachers:
- The toolkit helps teachers access the GSE as a tool to validate institutional student learning objectives (SLOs)
- As a model of descriptors of performance useful for creating rubrics and assessment tools
- As an inspiration for interesting and unique content that will engage and excite learners
Of the three pieces, the last is the most useful starting point. Why? Let me give you an example.
The GSE Teacher Toolkit as an inspiration for content
For this example, I’m going to step into some very familiar shoes, those of a language teacher at a local college. My goal is to quickly improve my learners’ levels of ability in English to move students into an engineering class (a great example of teaching English for specific purposes). My coursebook has several strong reading passages and does a great job of building the reading skills with a focus on understanding words from context and using textual analysis to answer questions and describe the process of answering. I provide some authentic content and follow the same skill-building techniques that are outlined in my coursebook, as this is what my student are learning. The students work well, meet the expectations of the course and are working towards the learning objectives. Even with all this work and progress, at the start of the second semester I see many of the same faces in my classroom when I was expecting them to move to a higher course. I have to ask myself, What’s missing?
This is where the toolkit first became an eye-opening resource for me. When I searched the skills I was developing with my learners, all appropriate reading skills, all encapsulated in my SLOs (skimming, scanning, comprehension and basic inferencing), I found that I was teaching right at the level of ability of my B1 learners. The toolkit shows the skills at the B1 level and also at the B1+ level and the B2 level. As I started reading through descriptors of performance, I realized there were some higher-level skills that I had never explored in the classroom with my students, challenges my students were not being prepared for. Suddenly, by looking away from “where my students are now” to “where I’d like my students to be,” I was overwhelmed with ideas for content I could build to supplement my coursebook.
The GSE provided a new strategy for planning. My coursebook can cover the basic work and I’m free to generate interesting ideas for classroom activities that will really challenge my learners. Even though the group I’m working with is at a B1 level, I planned a B2-level activity around a GSE descriptor. At the B1 reading level, my students would read and process information from a problem-solution essay. My coursebook provides several good examples and structured activities to build the skill, reducing the work I have to do. Now, for the challenge. I selected the following B2-level skill from the GSE toolkit:
Can critically evaluate the effectiveness of a simple problem-solution essay (GSE 61, B2 (59–66)).
This will allow the class to go beyond the surface application of the skill. For the activity, I selected a piece of authentic content, an op-ed piece from the newspaper, a great example of someone explaining a problem and presenting their argument for the best solution. The lesson plan practically wrote itself.
SLO: Students will be able to read and critically evaluate the effectiveness of a simple problem-solution essay from the opinion section of the newspaper.
SLO2: Students will describe which supporting details were most effective to support the author’s solution.
1) Read and review several shorter structured problem-solutions essays in the coursebook. Have students skim, scan and read to answer the specific question. Have students identify where the answer is indicated in the text and note why the answer is most appropriate.
2) Solo: Introduce seven selected vocabulary items from the op-ed piece and review.
3) Provide a gist question: Read the title. What solution do you think the author will provide to address the problem? Elicit predictions to check after the reading.
4) Have students skim. Check predictions.
5) Provide a set of comprehension questions. Have students scan and answer questions. Check answers in groups. In groups, have students discuss how they found the answer and why the text indicates this is correct. Check as a class.
6) B2 Skills: Evaluate the Effectiveness—Have students individually answer if they agree or disagree with the author’s solution. Students describe answers and why. Allow time for students to develop answers. In groups, have students share their ideas.
7) Building from the previous: In groups, have students discuss what aspects of the author’s solution were most effective. Have students list what additional details or examples could be provided to help others agree with the solution. Share ideas as a class.
8) In class [if time permits] or homework: Have students find an article, column piece or reading passage that provides an example of a problem solution that effectively swayed the student to agree with the solution for review in the next class.
The toolkit enables me as a teacher to be creative and provides additional validation that I’m working to challenge my learners appropriately. Steps 6 through 8 of my lesson will stretch my learners and, most importantly, help to provide skills that will hopefully see them transition out of my class and into general courses without the need to come back to me again. Being able to conveniently sort through and see descriptors specifically aligned to skills, area of study (professional, academic or general) and level of ability makes the tool particularly useful. No longer do I need to try to comb through and break down the very chunked description of performance in the CEFR to make it manageable and relevant for my learners. Additionally, I don’t have to search by reading through thousands of descriptors. In a few seconds, I can free my teacher planning brain to find new, fun and appropriate ways to challenge myself and learners to do new things together, proving that I am meeting my primary goal as a teacher, which is to support my students’ learning and support them towards success at their level and beyond.
With the new GSE toolkit, I feel as if I have just expanded my ability to discuss potential activities, assess skills and sense check the challenge of my activities with my peers across the world. The GSE certainly won’t replace my particular teacher “Spidey” sense or that of some of my best friends and colleagues in the field, but it certainly opens up a whole new world to what is possible in the classroom.
This post is the first in a series explaining three distinct ways the GSE toolkit benefits teachers. Read how you can use the GSE to enhance and improve English assessments here. And coming soon, how the toolkit helps teachers access the GSE as a tool to validate institutional student learning objectives.